A mostly solo release from SoCal composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Keneally, Wing Beat Fantastic: Songs Written by Mike Keneally and Andy Partridge adds up to a nutty musical koan, asking: Can pop-rock be simultaneously progressive and atavistic? Keneally, whose work remains catchy and cohesive even when concrète and structureless, has long been tending the vanguard of tunefulness that erstwhile employer Frank Zappa once maintained; furthermore, his school of thoughtful noisemaking is only a stone’s throw from XTC’s spiked art-pop, in which the hooks arrive gleaming with atonal acidity. Keneally and Partridge haven’t worked together officially until now (the two collaborated on songs for Wing Beat Fantastic, which Keneally then brought to life by himself) matters little when considering the latter’s formidable influence on the former. The only real discernible difference between these and other Keneally compositions, in fact, is a slight emphasis on standard verse-chorus-verse structure.
But the scope of Wing Beat Fantastic‘s sound reaches much further back than Skylarking or Drums and Wires. The airy vocal harmonies that stereophonically besiege more than a few bridge sections are pure Godley and Creme, while the dreamy, if rollicking, acoustic tracks are reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Future Games. That LP’s dystopian opener, “Woman of 1,000 Years,” gets a cosmic-expressionist sequel here called “Miracle Woman and Man,” complete with damp keyboards; on “That’s Why I Have No Name,” Keneally also mimics the funereal wailing of Danny Kirwan’s guitar with his always-judicious string bends, swapping his signature, arpeggiated half-tones for swelling, meditative leads. This homage to Fleetwood Mac’s “dark ages” is at first curious, but then seems to offer a footbridge between Partridge and Keneally’s respective outputs by way of a common ancestor. Within Future Games‘s “Sands of Time” alone, for instance, there’s inspiration enough for Partridge’s image-driven lyrics and epic melodies, as well as Keneally’s approach to improvisation.
These backward glances are the most serious and sustained allusions in Keneally’s career; by contrast, his Yes tribute “Faithful Axe” blasted through a patchwork of Steve Howe riffs in well under two minutes. Wing Beat Fantastic also represents his most willful regression, given the comparative simplicity of either Fleetwood Mac or XTC, and while it isn’t quite a dumbed-down return to Keneally’s roots, the album recycles its own ideas a few too many times. No less than three songs, for example, are structured around basslines that descend through a crisis of unresolved chords. (This downward plodding works best on the piano-driven “Your House,” about a stalker’s climbing anxiety, as the lyrics and music meet each other halfway.)
But the repetition gives the album a sense of purposeful unity, too, which isn’t a quality that one readily associates with the protean Keneally. The album never really strays far from the tone set by the bluesy, strummy opener “I’m Raining Here, Inside”; the remainder is something of a deconstruction of that track’s many layers. Its jerky rhythms return for “Inglow,” for example, while the crunchy, radio-friendly guitar is revisited with a vengeance on “Bobeau.” Frequent acoustic snippets wedged between these fully realized songs provide the transitional quietude of hushed antechambers.
Fans of both musicians might be disconcerted by the album’s dearth of gags (among many other things, Keneally and Partridge also share a barbed sense of humor), but it does have one great, gentle joke: the political diatribe “You Kill Me.” The lyrics are comprised of fairly standard liberalisms: “You kill me with your ‘praise the Lord’ and your waterboard…” But they’re made funny by the bright, brittle guitar parts and chugging beat. Keneally needles the song’s repetitious foundation with an endless barrage of ornamental noodles; any of the little note clusters he twangs out could be conceivably expanded into separate compositions, but he opts instead to pile them up to a dense and delirious five minutes. With each repeated listen, I hear a new little mini-symphony whistling out of the upper reaches of Keneally’s guitar neck.